With the new BYU curiculum change, one of the classes that will be required is “Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon.” It made me think about doctrinal similarities and differences between the Book of Mormon and modern Mormonism. Since I can’t write a blog post about every doctrinal comparison, I tried to pick the most important doctrine. In a 2012 conference address Elder Bednar quoted President David O. McKay stating, “If at this moment each one of you were asked to state in one sentence or phrase the most distinguishing feature of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what would be your answer?” (“The Mission of the Church and Its Members,” Improvement Era, Nov. 1956, 781). Elder Bednar continued: “The response President McKay gave to his own question was the ‘divine authority’ of the priesthood. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands apart from other churches that claim their authority is derived from historical succession, the scriptures, or theological training. We make the distinctive declaration that priesthood authority has been conferred by the laying on of hands directly from heavenly messengers to the Prophet Joseph Smith.” (David A. Bendar, “The Powers of Heaven” April 2012 General Conference).

How does the Book of Mormon describe authority and Priesthood? Is it the same as modern Mormonism? Does it have the same emphasis on Priesthood from heavenly messengers by the laying on of hands?

Priesthood in the Book of Mormon is difficult to pin down. The early Church followed the system of priests, teachers, and elders described in the Book of Mormon with Joseph and Oliver Cowdery, but Priesthood changes significantly after Sidney Rigdon arrived [1]. Furthermore, the “precious things” of authority, offices, and ordinations described in the Book of Mormon are not very “plain” (1 Nephi 13:40). Therefore it can be difficult to separate concepts of Priesthood in the Book of Mormon from more modern understanding of Priesthood within Mormonism, even from the perspective of an 1831 Mormon.

Priesthood Authority

What is the authority of the Priesthood? The “power and authority” of the Priesthood is well developed now, with many different General Conference talks to choose from. However, it would be a mistake to take these current interpretations and impose them on the text. The primary authority given the high priest, priests, and teachers is the authority to preach. This is the only duty of a high priest given in the description of the Priesthood in Alma 13, “the Lord God ordained priests…to teach these things unto the people” (Alma 13:1), and in the ordination of a priest or teacher in Moroni 3 they are ordained “to preach repentance and remission of sins through Jesus Christ” (Moroni 3:3). When the duties of a priest or teacher are given in the Book of Mormon, it is almost exclusively to preach or teach the people [2].

Power and authority to preach is a somewhat foreign concept to modern Mormons because in a ward all are called to preach and teach in classes and Sacrament meeting, and Priesthood-less Sister-missionaries are called to preach the gospel. The authority to preach is different than the modern duty of Apostles to establish doctrine. In the New Testament it says that Jesus “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:29). This power and authority to preach is described in the Book of Mormon as “they…had what they should speak given unto them” (Hel. 5:18) and is the “spirit of prophesying” (Mosiah 12:25). Therefore the power and authority to preach appears to be from the Holy Ghost providing the words to speak, but is not necessarily connected with the “gift of the Holy Ghost.” In the modern church the inspiration of words to teach others is almost always connected with the gift of the Holy Ghost rather than through office. However in the Book of Mormon it says, “none received authority to preach or teach except it were by him from God. Therefore he consecrated all their priests and all their teachers” (Mosiah 23:17).

While the word “Priesthood” is used in Alma 13, in the rest of the book any other concepts we now connect with Priesthood are  referred to as “authority” or with references to offices. Authority appears to be the main issue the authors of the Book of Mormon are concerned with, while Priesthood is a more esoteric concept, discussed in only one chapter. “Priesthood,” offices, and “authority,” however, should not necessarily be conflated. Priesthood in Alma 13 is described as a “holy order.” It is unclear from the text if the Priesthood of the high priest should also be thought of as authority. Some prefer the interpretation that Priesthood is referring to both the order and the authority. It makes more sense to me that Priesthood is the “holy order” of high priests and was conflated with authority post-Book of Mormon because there are no references to authority in Alma 13, and replacing the word “Priesthood” with “authority” in the chapter is nonsensical . Furthermore, all ordinances given in the Book of Mormon performed in the name of Jesus Christ, under his authority, with no reference to Priesthood. Prior to Jesus’s visit authority is ascribed to “Almighty God” (Mosiah 18:13). For example, the baptism prayer says “authority given me of Jesus Christ” with no mention of Priesthood. The reference to Priesthood authority in ordinances did not begin until some time after the Book of Mormon was written [1]. Jesus gives the disciples authority to baptize vocally, without any laying on of hands (3 Nephi 11:21-22), implying the authority comes from Jesus’s “permission” rather than a specific power or Priesthood. I believe that the Book of Mormon is describing two different types of authority: authority from God  prior to Christ, which is replaced by authority from Jesus Christ.

Receive the Holy Ghost

In the current Church members receive the gift of the Holy Ghost through confirmation after baptism. However, the method of receiving the Holy Ghost is somewhat more complicated in the Book of Mormon.
Lamanites are described as being baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost because of their great righteousness, “and they knew it not,” which is difficult if the laying on of hands had occurred (3 Nephi 9:20). Recieving the Holy Ghost also occurs after baptism, apparently without the laying on of hands, such as in Mosiah 18. However, the disciples are given the power to confer the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands (Moroni 2), but no set prayer is required unlike today. Therefore, receiving the Holy Ghost could occur through multiple methods in the Book of Mormon. It is not the single process of confirmation following baptism found in the Church today.

Priesthood Office

The offices of priest, teacher, elder, disciple, and high priest are specified in the Book of Mormon. Elder and disciple are the same (Moroni 3:1). High priest does not appear after Jesus’s visit to the Americas. While one would expect Jesus to restore the fulness of Priesthood organization in the Book of Mormon, he actually removes the office of high priest, and does not introduce many of the later Mormon offices such as Seventy or Bishop. While Jesus introduces proper baptism and conferral of the Holy Ghost, he does not preach on Priesthood at all, and of course does not introduce any of the important later ordinances such as the endowment.

Teachers are described as teaching the people and baptizing. Priests also administer the sacrament. Elders ordain priests and teachers and give the Holy Ghost. This sounds relatively familiar to modern Priesthood structure. However, there is no Aaronic and Melchizidek Priesthood in the Book of Mormon, these terms are not introduced until 1835 [1]. Elders are not described as having a “higher” priesthood than priests and teachers, “high priesthood” is not introduced until 1831 [1]. The difference in duties is apparently due to authority to confer the Holy Ghost and not a separate “level” of Priesthood. In fact, the offices of elder, priest, and teacher are not referred to as “priesthood” or “priesthood office” in the Book of Mormon. Teachers and priests are ordained by the “power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 3:4) and not by Priesthood. Priesthood is only connected with the office of high priest in Alma 13 [1]. The high priest imparts “authority” to priests and teachers but apparently not “Priesthood,” which is the name of the “holy order” that the high priest belongs to. However, ordination prayers used before Jesus’s visit to the Americas are not given. It is possible that those pre-Jesus ordinations included a reference to Priesthood, but it is more likely that they referred to authority given from God instead of Jesus. There are some connections between the duties of the high priest described in Alma 13 and the duties of teacher and priest, as both are described as preaching and teaching. This connection is why I view the authority of teachers and priests being connected to the authority of God through ordination from the high priest prior to Jesus’s visit to Americas, which is replaced by authority from Jesus and the removal of the office of high priest.

How an elder is called is somewhat obscure in the Book of Mormon. Elders ordain teachers and priests but no ordination prayer is given for elders. It is likely that elders are called when given the authority to give the Holy Ghost as detailed in Moroni 2. This is supported by the fact that ordination of teachers and priests is done by “the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 3:4). So ordination to elder is not connected to ordination to the “high Priesthood” or even a direct ordination to the office of elder: one becomes an elder when given the authority to confer the Holy Ghost.

Ordination vs Calling

In the current Church, ordination and calling to the Priesthood are the same thing; however, they are separate in the Book of Mormon [3]. As described in Alma 13, men are first “called and prepared…on account of their exceeding faith and good works.” They are “called with a holy calling.” So first comes the calling and then the ordination: “Now they were ordained after this manner – being called with a holy calling, and ordained with a holy ordinance.” The holy ordinance is not described in Alma 13, or anywhere else in the Book of Mormon. Because it is only referring to the office of high priest it may be that it is referring to some kind of spiritual ordination, such as with Alma. It has some symbolic connection to Jesus: “these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord” (Alma 13:16). This verse may also mean that the Priesthood ends with Jesus, since it was given “that the people might look forward on the Son of God.” This may be why the office of high priest disappears after Jesus appears to the people of the Americas.

There are examples of those men who, when living in a time or place without authority, receive the authority without the laying on of hands, such as Melchizidek, Alma, and Abinadi. Alma gained his authority by “saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon they servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.” He seems to have gained the office of high priest simply because he founded the church: “And now, Alma was the high priest, he being the founder of their church” (Mosiah 23:16). The apparent lack of ordination of these men to the office of high priest may be a clue that the ordination described in Alma 13 is spiritual and is not the laying on of hands. Some have argued that Alma the Younger’s calling and ordination also occurred spiritually without laying on of hands [3], which happened even with an existent high priest. This would mean that these spiritual ordinations can occur even with a current hierarchy. This is all in stark contrast to the importance Mormons now place on prophetic succession, angelic ordination, and Priesthood hierarchy.

Prophetic Succession

In the modern church there is a strong emphasis on the importance of a continuing Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and a Prophet/President or First Presidency to lead the church. This structure does not exist in the Book of Mormon. Pre-Jesus there is a High Priest that leads the church who calls priests and teachers, but this is removed when Jesus visits. Jesus calls 12 disciples, who are replaced by elders, who call priests and teachers. The number of elders is not specified so probably do not form a quorum of 12. No quorums are described at all, and quorums did not appear in the LDS church for several years after the Book of Mormon is published [1]. There is no Prophet, high priest, President, or King who heads the church as a whole after Jesus visits the Nephites. This is supported by the fact that in very early Mormonism Joseph and Oliver Cowdery were the two “elders” of the church (D&C 20:2-3). Rather than the Book of Mormon emphasizing the need of Priesthood line of authority extending to Jesus (such as through angelic beings), the Book of Mormon includes several examples of individuals apparently outside of an authority structure such as Alma, as described above.

Authority of Jesus Christ vs “Priesthood Authority”

When ordinances are performed in the Book of Mormon, they are not performed by the “power and authority of the Priesthood.” This is seen from the following points of evidence:

1) The word Priesthood is never mentioned in any of the prayers given in the Book of Mormons, including the Sacrament, baptism, giving the Holy Ghost, or Priesthood ordination. The prayers are not started with “by the authority of the Melchizidek Priesthood” or any other similar appeal to Priesthood. The only appeal in each is to Jesus Christ. References to Priesthood in ordinances did not occur in the church until some time after the Book of Mormon was published [1]. It is clear that Jesus himself is the source of authority when Jesus told the disciples, without reference to Priesthood and without laying on of hands, “I give unto you power that ye shall baptize this people when I am again ascended into heaven” (3 Nephi 11:21).

The Book of Mormon connects ordinances to “office” but it never directly links “Priesthood” with any ordinance. It is unclear if being in the office gives the priest the authority to baptize, or if the authority to baptize is given separately. Authority to baptize or perform other ordinances is never mentioned in the description of Priesthood in Alma 13, or the ordination of priests in Moroni 2.

2) The Book of Mormon only uses the word “Priesthood” in connection with the high priest, an office removed by Jesus. This may mean that the Book of Mormon views Priesthood as a pre-Jesus concept. Under this view, the Priesthood was for looking forward to Jesus’ Atonement (Alma 13:16) and was removed when the Atonement was accomplished.

3) The Book of Mormon says that priests and teachers are ordained “by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 3:4), rather than the power of the Priesthood.

4) Jesus gives the disciples authority to baptize and authority to give the Holy Ghost separate from any ordination to office (Moroni 2). Furthermore, the disciples are told that they must pray to receive the power to give the Holy Ghost, apparently each time it is given. No rote prayer is specified, the method of conferring the Holy Ghost is to “call on the Father in my name, in might prayer; and after ye have done this ye shall have power that to him upon who ye shall lay your hands, ye shall give the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 2:2). So not only is the authority to confer the Holy Ghost separate from Priesthood, but it isn’t even permanently retained. The elder must pray to have the authority given him each time before laying his hands on the individual. Alma receives his authority to baptize simply by praying and receiving “the Spirit of the Lord” (Mosiah 18:13).

5) A separate conferral of authority to perform each ordinance is given in the Book of Mormon [4]. This implies that the authority to perform ordinances is separate from authority of an office. “Authority” of an office in the Book of Mormon is as described above: the authority to preach to the people (Alma 13:1-6), while the authority to perform ordinances is a separate concept.

6) The word “Priesthood” is never directly connected to the offices of elder, priest, and teacher. The authority to perform ordinances is separate from “Priesthood,” which is connected to the office of high priest. The Priesthood is called a “holy order” in Alma 13 and is not referred to as authority, which means it is unclear from the text if Priesthood is synonymous with authority in the case of the high priest.

7) The word “Priesthood” is likely only found in Alma 13 because of that chapter’s dependence on the book of Hebrews [5]. This could mean that Priesthood was not a regular part of Joseph’s vocabulary, or at least his theology, at the time the Book of Mormon was written. This is supported by the fact that the word “Priesthood” is not used outside of Alma 13 and the Inspired revision of the Bible until June 1831, and evolved considerably afterward. The conception of Priesthood being the broader authority, and the power by which ordinances are completed is apparently an understanding that was come to later than the publication of the Book of Mormon [6]. David Whitmer claimed that in the early Church they spoke only of authority and that it was Sidney Rigdon who introduced the use of the word Priesthood instead, among other ideas connected with Priesthood [7]. This is supported by contemporary documents.

Baptism in the Book of Mormon

The baptismal prayer specified by Jesus in the Book of Mormon is different than the one in use today: “Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen” (3 Nephi 11:25). The current prayer replaces the “Having authority given me of Jesus Christ” with “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ…” (D&C 20:73). For some time in early Mormonism the Book of Mormon prayer was still used [8]; the prayer was changed for unknown reasons. While the modern Church only accepts the latter wording, this shows that the exact words spoken may not matter as much as some now assume. In the Book of Mormon both priests and teachers are able to baptize (Alma 15:13), while today a teacher cannot baptize, this probably changed with the increase in number of priesthood offices.

Book of Mormon vs Mormonism

There are several more ordinances in the modern Church that are not found in the Book of Mormon such as baptism for the dead and the endowment. These came later in the modern church, of course. While these are now seen as required for salvation, the Book of Mormon shows no knowledge of these requirements.

While in the modern Church Priesthood is given to all worthy men, and is even considered a requirement for salvation for men, this concept is not found in the Book of Mormon. Offices are only given to select individuals (Mosiah 25:19), and only high priests are members of the “holy order” of the Priesthood (Alma 13).

In the modern Church healings and miracles are performed with Priesthood. In the Book of Mormon miracles are not connected to Priesthood, authority, or offices. On the contrary, it is stated that faith alone is what is required. “Behold, I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him; and this promise is unto all, even unto the ends of the earth.” (Mormon 9:21). See Moroni 7, Mosiah 8:18, Ether 12, and the rest of Mormon 9.


Priesthood in the Book of Mormon is much different than we know it today. To understand what the authors are saying we must read it on its own terms rather than imposing a modern conception of Priesthood on it. Many Mormon-apologists have taken time to attempt to prove that Mormonism is a restoration of New Testament Christianity. Whether it compares well is a topic for another blog post. However, it is clear to me that Mormonism is not Book of Mormon Christianity. This is somewhat surprising since the Book of Mormon is the text which is not corrupted by scribes. While many Mormons now view the “Restoration” as restoring the same Church that was founded by Jesus, this view is not supported by analysis of the Book of Mormon. The Restoration, in my opinion, should be viewed as an evolving process that leads the Church in new directions, introduces new doctrines, and reinterprets ancient scripture.

[1] Gregory A. Prince. Power From On High. http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=4986

[2] 1 Nephi 10:22 – “And the Holy Ghost giveth authority that I should speak these things, and deny them not.”
2 Nephi 5:26 – “priests and teachers” – no duties specified
2 Nephi 28 – false priests “teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost.”
Jacob 1:18-19 – “prests and teachers” – “teach them the word of God with all diligence”
Jarom 1:11 – “the prophets, the priests, and the teachers” – “did labor diligently, exhorting with all long-suffering the people to diligence; teaching the law of Moses, and the intent for which it was given; persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was. And after this manner did they teach them.”
Words of Mormon 1:15-17 – “false Christs…false prophets, and false preachers and teachers” were in the land, “their mouts had been shut.” – “holy prophets…did speak the word of God with power and with authority”
Mosiah 12:25 – false priests of Noah – “And now Abinadi said unto them: Are you priests, and pretend to teach this people, and to understand the spirit of prophesying, and yet desire to know of me what these things mean?”
Mosiah 13:6 – “And he spake with power and authority from God”
Mosiah 17:3 – “and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.”
Mosiah 18:18-20 – “And it came to pass that Alma, having authority from God, ordained priests; even one priest to every fifty of their number did he ordain to preach unto them, and to teach them concerning the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And he commanded them that they should teach nothing save it were the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets.Yea, even he commanded them that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people.”
Mosiah 23:14 – “trust no one to be your teacher nor your minister, except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments”
Mosiah 23:17 – “none received authority to preach or teach except it were by him from God. Therefore he consecrated all their priests and all their teachers; and none were consecrated except they were just men.”
Mosiah 25:19-22 – Alma ordained priests and teachers over every church because “they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly; Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their techers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma. And thus, notwithstanding there being many churches they were all one church, yea, even the church of God; for there was nothing preached in all the churches except it were repentance and faith in God.”
Mosiah 26:7 – “And it came to pass that they were brought before the priests, and delivered up unto the priests by the teachers; and the priests brought them before Alma, who was the high priest.”
Mosiah 27:22 – “And he caused that the priests should assemble themselves together; and they began to fast, and to pray to the Lord their God that he would open the mouth of Alma, that he might speak, and also that his limbs might receive their strength—that the eyes of the people might be opened to see and know of the goodness and glory of God.”
Alma 1:7 – “And it came to pass as he was going, to preach to those who believed on his word, he met a man who belonged to the church of God, yea, even one of their teachers; and he began to contend with him sharply, that he might lead away the people of the church; but the man withstood him, admonishing him with the words of God.”
Alma 1:26 – “And when the priest had imparted unto them the word of God they all returned again diligently unto their labors; and the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.”
Alma 5:3 – “Alma, having been consecrated by my father, Alma, to be a high priest over the church of God, he having power and authority from God to do these things, behold, I say unto you that he began to establish a church in the land which was in the borders of Nephi”
Alma 6:1 – ‘he orained priests and elders, by laying on his hands according to the order of God, to preside and watch over the church.”
Alma 13:1 – “And again, my brethren, I would cite your minds forward to the time when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children; and I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people.”
Alma 13:6 – “And thus being called by this holy calling, and ordained unto the high priesthood of the holy order of God, to teach his commandments unto the children of men, that they also might enter into his rest—”
Alma 15:13 – “And Alma established a church in the land of Sidom, and consecrated priests and teachers in the land, to baptize unto the Lord whosoever were desirous to be baptized.”
Alma 23:4 – “consecraing priests and teachers throughout the land among the Lamanaites, to preach and to teach the word of God among them”
Alma 45:23 – “Helaman and his brethren had appointed priests and teachers over the churches”
Helaman 5:18 – “Nephi and Lehi did preach unto the Lamanites with such great power and authority, for they had power and authority given unto them that they might speak, and they also had what they should speak given unto them”
Helman 6:5 – “many did preach with exceedingly great power and authority, unto bringing down many of them into the depths of humility, to be the humble followers of God and the Lamb.”
Moroni 3:3 – “In the name of Jesus Christ I ordain you to be a priest (or if he be a teacher, I ordain you to be a teacher) to preach repentance and remission of sins through Jesus Christ, by the endurance of faith on his name to the end. Amen.”

[3] Paul James Toscano. Priesthood Concepts in the Book of Mormon. https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/074-08-17.pdf

[4] A specific conferral of authority to baptize (3 Nephi 11:21) and give the Holy Ghost (3 Neph. 18:36-37, Moro. 2) is performed by Jesus. Jesus also says that he will perform an ordination for a specific individual to administer the sacrament: “Behold there shall one be ordained among you, and to him will I give power that he shall break bread and bless it and give it unto the people of my church, unto all those who shall believe and be baptized in my name (3 Nephi 18:5). However, by Moroni 3 it simply says that elders and priests administer the sacrament. Therefore there is either a separate sacrament administration ordination that is not given in the Book of Mormon, or the requirement for ordination to administer the sacrament was later dropped, or this is an inconsistency in the Book. So each ordinance in the Book of Mormon: baptism, administration of the sacrament, and conferral of the Holy Ghost, have an individual conferral of authority with which to perform them, separate from office. The only possible exception is that it appears the ordination to the office of elder occurs with the ordination to be able to confer the Holy Ghost. In this case the ability to perform an ordinance is directly linked to office, so it may be that priests were ordained with the power to baptize at the same time as their ordination to the office of priest.

[5] David P. Wright. “In Plain Terms That We May Understand”: Joseph Smith’s Transformation of Hebrews in Alma 12-13. http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=10137

[6] Matthew C. Godfrey. “A Culmination of Learning: D&C 84 and the Doctrine of the Priesthood.” http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/you-shall-have-my-word/culmination-learning-dc-and-doctrine-priesthood

[7] David Whitmer, “An Address to All Believers in Christ, p. 64.

[8] http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/articles-of-the-church-of-christ-june-1829#!/paperSummary/articles-of-the-church-of-christ-june-1829&p=1


Dr. Thomas is a metallurgist living in Pittsburgh with his wife and two children.

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